The subtitle of Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World: What Does China Want?, is a question that is on the minds of the world’s statesmen, policymakers, international relations scholars, global investment advisors, international business leaders and geopolitical thinkers. Given China’s growing global diplomatic, economic, and military footprint, the answer to that question will shape the geopolitics of the rest of the 21st century.

The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson contends that the Second World War began in July 1937, when, after an “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, Japan sent five divisions to Northern and coastal China. By the end of the year, more than 800,000 Japanese troops occupied 150,000 square miles of Chinese territory, and the Chinese capital of Nanking had been literally raped and pillaged by Japanese forces.

It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.

History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.

William J Rust has been researching and studying the history of US relations with the nations of Southeast Asia for more than three decades in an effort to explain the origins of the Second Indochina War. His latest book, Eisenhower & Cambodia, focuses on the Eisenhower administration’s policies toward Cambodia and its mercurial leader Norodom Sihanouk after that country gained its independence in the wake of the First Indochina War against France.